The similarities between finding bar work and science funding

This blog post was originally written for a nature columnist competition which I was unsuccessful in but actually most likely was the spark that made me start this blog so I thought I would share it with you.

‘Do you have any experience of bar work?’ was the question of every potential employer I approached.  I was an 18 year old man on a mission and the mission was to progress from my part time, primarily adolescent job, delivering newspapers.  The route as to how one initially gained experience of bar tendering in order to apply for a job as a bar tender appeared paradoxical.  Fast forward a dozen years later and I find myself in a parallel situation, keen to obtain funding for my own personally conceived research ideas without a clear route to obtain such funding.

Eagerly I have scoured the internet and approached more senior established colleagues for advice.  Unfortunately they are largely unaware or acknowledge that there are scant funding opportunities for early career researchers (ECR)/postdoc’s who have a thirst for academic independence.  To my surprise I have found that it is not the writing of the grant that poses the most considerable challenge for the ECR but actually discovering the avenues which lead to independent research funding.

What explains this paucity of opportunities for early career researchers?  Does a lack of ECR opportunities reflect a lack of desire of ECRs who want/have the capability to be independent?  Alternatively does this lack of investment represent the risk posed by funding ECRs?  Could it be a lack of expertise and/or time for ECRs to write grants?

Ultimately it is likely that a mixture of all these factors contribute to a lack of ECR opportunities.  Several scientists have no desire to leave or reduce their time in the lab to become principal investigators (PI) and therefore have no desire to search or apply for these opportunities.  Others have not yet developed, or will never have (and therefore represent risk), the capability to contend with the demands of balancing research, teaching and administrative duties required from an independent scientist.   Many institutions (including my own) have recognised that grant writing is not an innate ability and now provide and promote grant writing courses to ECRs.  However attendance on these training courses is largely irrelevant if little opportunities exist or no time is allocated to practice and refine this art.  Far too often ECRs are absorbed by the laboratory demands of a project with downward pressure to constantly generate data being exerted by the permanent PI who ‘got’ the grant onto the predominantly temporary three year fixed term contract ECR.

The situation for the ECR is not entirely bleak and I have encountered a limited number of fellowship/small grant opportunities eligible for ECRs to apply for in addition to more novel funding avenues such as crowd funding.  Crowd funding has shown great popularity predominantly with young scientists and serves as an example of the thirst of young researcher’s desire for independence and has provided innovative solutions to societal problems (openPCR being one excellent example,  Academia should be an innovation pool which acts to serve and progress society as a whole.  I would argue that it is a lack of independence for the ECR which is of great detriment to society and the time driven insecurity of fixed term contracts forces young innovative scientists to seek alternative routes of employment to pacify their inner creative creatures, in addition to paying the bills.  Unabated by these challenges and in the same vein as when applying for my first bar job, I will use determination as my main strategy but do believe longer ECR contracts in combination with opportunities to build early career independence would go some way to enhance widespread societal progress.

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‘Small’ Vs ‘Big’ science

A recent and really very nice paper in PLOS ONE ( investigates the issue of whether funding correlates with increased scientific impact.  The study finds that impact is positively correlates with funding but only very weakly and the authors suggest a better strategy would be to target diversity rather than ‘excellence’.  Given the current economic climate the natural instinct is to protect ‘big science’ as the notion is that this is a safer bet, may be fundamentally flawed and what would be better to stimulate innovation is to give less to more people.  In particular I believe the scientific youth are most likely to thrive on the independence small amounts of funding brings and therefore some funding should be targeted to this sector to stop frustrated young researchers leaving.

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Why basic curiosity driven research is just as important as translational investment

The government recently announced their funding plans for the future of science in the UK.  As in most sectors funding is not set to rise with the budget being frozen at £4.6Billion.  There is an increase on infrastructure and facilities from £0.6Billion to £1.1 Billion, rising in line with inflation until 2020-21.  The budget gives an extra £185 million to the Technology Strategy Board, involved in business-led research projects.  These trends, are, at least to me, not surprising given the current economic climate and mantra of the dominant political party in the UK, private is better and commercialization is the way out of recession.  Unfortunately buildings do not make discoveries, people do and although investment in translation is welcome and necessary I believe basic research suffers as a consequence, particularly what is commonly referred to as ‘small’ or ‘little’ science (projects funded with a relatively small amount of money compared to larger science projects).  Science is Vital ( finding that of 868 polled UK researchers, 70% of junior scientists have lost confidence in research careers in Britain, 59% stating their grant success rate has fallen with Jennifer Rohn stating that ‘Frustrated young researchers are leaving’.  I was not a participant in the study but I have to say that pretty much sums it up.

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Should I do a PhD?

This is a critical question if you are in a position to be contemplating doing one (normally as a result of a subject you are interested in at University).  The first question to answer is do you need to do a PhD for the career you are considering? My advice is to talk to as many people as you possibly can about this and gain some practical experience of your field.

If you are considering doing a PhD in order to become a researcher of some sorts remember research is hard, really hard.  You are also liable of having to move cities and sometimes countries in order to work in a field you are interested in.  Academic institutions are quick to tell you the benefits of a scientific career and indeed encourage high numbers of students (in my opinion often too many) to do a PhD without highlighting draw backs such as spending up to ten years on fixed term contracts, in other words your contract can end and you may need to move cities in order to find work. This can prove hard if you ever want to own your own house or have a family.  It may seem a long way off now but it will creep up on you.  These are things I do not remember the University or careers service mentioning.

Regardless, well largely oblivious of these things, I took the plunge and decided to do one.

Most of the logic that went it to making this decision was in hindsight fundamentally flawed but in my case not necessarily in a bad way.

My thought process went something along the lines;

1.   Overall, even given the stress of exams, I enjoyed learning during my degree and enjoyed my subject I think I want to do more.

2.   I am not entirely sure of the career path I would like to take and surely it wouldn’t hurt to do a PhD and surely I must be more employable as a result.

I had some previous research experience on a summer school, so had some basic research experience but I didn’t like the idea of paying for a Masters (there are few funded masters opportunities in any branch of research).  I thought therefore I would try and get a job as a research technician to gain some further practical experience.  Fortunately I was able to secure a position (something that I am not sure I would be able to now) and I am still truly grateful of this experience and the continued advice I receive from my previous inspirational boss.

This was crucial as it really gave me a flavor of what it physically entails to do research whilst looking for a suitable PhD position.  Unfortunately with funding cuts to research budgets you see less and less research technician/assistant positions advertised.  A masters degree has now almost become a requisite for entry into most PhD programs.  This is most likely the consequence of the increasing numbers of graduates (there was around 100 people on my undergraduate degree and at my current university there are around 260 on a comparable course) often with little or no practical research experience.

Just like research, do your research on the area or areas you are thinking of working in as a starting point and then look to gain practical experience in this area.

I think as much as experience and exposure to the laboratory environment is crucial if you are to make an informed decision.  Most people, at least these days, would not move to another country without visiting it (at least I hope so) as you can’t be sure you can see yourself fitting there.  The same is true for research, you might have loved the theory but can you put up with the tedium (at times) of running experiments.  Although research technician positions have become rarer, many Universities offer paid (competitive) summer schemes for undergraduates to gain research experience and provide an ideal platform to gain research experience and strongly encourage anyone considering a career in research to apply.  Ideally, at least in the UK you want to contact people you are interested in working with just after Christmas.  The deadlines for project proposals are around March each year.  Don’t worry you wont have to come up with a proposal but if you can help come up with one I think most potential supervisors would be very impressed although it obviously has to align with their interests/area of expertise.

In terms of enjoying my subject, overall given the drawbacks I still love it, you tend to call it your field strangely enough and not subject.  I think you have to love to work, almost to the point of obsession, as honestly you are up against people like this who are competing for the same positions as you the higher up the academic ladder you attempt to scale.

As for being more employable, having a PhD does not necessarily make you more employable contrary to what any of your friends/general public may think.  You have a PhD you must be sooo clever (you actually end up knowing a lot about very little) therefore it must be easy for you to get a job.  I took some time out after my PhD to travel and upon returning to the UK in the height of a recession struggled to get any form of work despite my best efforts,  I applied for pretty much temporary job imaginable and worked as a accommodation inspector, exam scribe and was a taste tester for a supermarket, not as glamorous or tasty as it sounds.  Your PhD is great in that it makes you relatively specialized, but it also terrible in that it can make you, at least seem, relatively specialized.  So when there is demand for these skills or this area then you have wide ranging choice.  However when there is not, or these skills are in abundance you do not have that choice. It should be noted doing a PhD gives you many transferable skills, time management, creativity, problem solving (almost constantly if you do life science research) and a broad experience of science.  When applying for jobs that do not require a PhD you really need to show that you understand the role you are applying for and how your PhD skills will enhance your function in whatever role your are applying for.

In terms of would I do a PhD again, my answer shortly after finishing would no, never again, just because of the effort required to consolidate three years of research into a thesis.  Having had time to mellow with age, I most definitely would do it again.  The joy of making your own discoveries is one of the greatest feelings and contributing to human knowledge is really satisfying.  The thought that your research may just benefit someone someday is the cherry on top of the cake.  Life is a journey, doing a PhD will enrich it both from the people the meet and the experiences you will discover and rather than seeing moving as daunting I see it as challange and an opprtunity to live and work somewhere new.

Happy looking for your perfect PhD.

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‘Quick wins’ rather than asking truely pertinant questions.

Scientists, have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and solving problems, at least the good ones do.  Scientists tend to be good at noticing interesting patterns or coming up with interesting ideas based on what they have heard, often at other scientific conferences and read.  Based on these observations or ideas (also called a hypothesis) the next step is to write a proposal in order to gain some funding to pursue these ideas with some supporting evidence or use current research which you did not perform to support your ideas, normally its a mixture of the two.  There are two main types of funding to which you can apply.  The most normal route is via a grant, which normally provides funding for at least the cost of the equipment but also salary for other scientists on the project.  This funding is allocated on a (very) competitive  basis which is reviewed by other scientists to see how much they like it and how feasible the work is.  Unfortunately to apply for a grant you normally have to be a permanent member of staff at a research institution such as a University.   Prior to trying to apply for a more stable position most scientists go through a period of employment where they are funded through fixed term contracts.  The other route is to try and gain a fellowship where the money for the project is allocated personally to you, this is called a fellowship and again are competitively awarded, even more so than grant applications.

After a recent fellowship rejection I eagerly awaited the feedback.

The feedback I got was vague and to be honest not very useful at all.  At least with feedback on papers, reviewers can often come up with useful suggestions.  The first comment or reasons for rejection was ‘not enough papers’ and the second was ‘interesting idea’.  So I guess I need to publish more papers then (I currently have 5 , around 120 citations, with three more papers in the pipeline that should be published in the not too distant future all in reasonable/good journals), for my career stage and field I consider not to be too bad.

Shortly after this rejection I was in a meeting with a number of scientific colleagues, discussing the progress of some research, directions to take next and publications.  Largely as a consequence of the impending end of our grant, the most prominent quote of the meeting was that we needed to work towards the data generation/publications that gave us the ‘quick wins’.

Researchers are human and if we live on this planet we still need to pay our bills, buy food, clothe ourselves etc.  Hence if more publications = better (which I would argue isn’t the case for the majority), our survival both scientifically and financially is reliant on more publications.

Herein lies a major problem in scientific research, due to the nature of short term grant cycles (three years if you are lucky, in the case of life science research this can be excruciatingly short, protocols can last months) rather than asking truly pertinent questions, there is the rush to publish and tick the boxes. Can you imagine a medical doctor, lawyer, architect or other highly trained individual living on fixed term contract.  Scientists are just as trained as these individuals yet are expected to perform such a feat.  I personally don’t want a higher wage I would like greater stability so that I have the time to perform high quality research and develop areas of research which are not necessarily defined by funders.

Thinking of potential solutions to this problem.  Why not remove permanency/fund fewer scientists for longer and actually give the time necessary to high quality research?

I believe we are breeding a generation of researchers who are becoming more and more despondent about performing scientific research, particularly in the life sciences with the most ambitious and creative opting for alternative career paths as the others carry on producing lots of little.


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Combatting principal investigators unrealistic expectations by enabling junoir researchers to lead a group

Do you, or do you want,  to work in academic life science research?  For those of you that do not current work in scientific research, a principal investigator (PI) is normally the person that has had a research proposal successfully funded and could otherwise be known as your boss.

If you are currently working in science this may be a very familiar feeling where time is no longer a relevant dimension in space.  This scenario is not unique to science but can be felt quite acutely when following standardised protocols that even if you tried would not be able to deliver in certain timescales often due to constraints in biology.

I believe that the source of these unrealistic expectations lies in the fact that most PIs, at least the ones that exclude time as a relevant factor, no longer work at the bench.

I think this could be combated in two ways, permitting/affording the time/in some cases force senior staff/professors (some have worked hard to get away from the bench) to work at the bench.  Secondly making junior staff aware of the pressures a PI faces, which are considerable, by affording them the time to write their own independant project proposals thereby allowing the junoir staff to peak into the world of the PI.

I am not considered a PI (being non tenured) however in my spare time (I am no longer sure what that really means, although possibly writing a blog at 6am is) I have written both my own grants and fellowship applications and see first hand how difficult and competitive this process is.  Whilst the majority of my applications have been unsuccessful (get used to this feeling) a couple have been successful and have been able to gain some funds as PI for some undergraduate students to work with me.  It’s not a lot but its something (although given the effort it may have been easier to use my own salary to pay a student and have radically considered this but due to employment legislation I can not).

Being a PI for a student in which I conceived and wrote a funding application independently of my current boss, got it funded, recruited a student and then crucially have had to train them practically in the lab has made my expectations more realistic.  It’s the tacit, and in the case of laboratory work, practical knowledge, that you somehow assume a student has absorbed in lectures that makes you realise how much they still need to learn and therefore the speed at which they work and the number of mistakes that is made is (in the majority of cases) much greater than a more experienced member of staff (although not always).

This experience of knowing the whole process (from grant to physically supervising a student, much like how I train a student they need to know how to design an experiment and complete it) has most definitely made my expectations more realistic which I hope one day I can utilise if I ever gain tenure and become an official PI and think that professors would benefit from actually still being in the lab.

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Why can’t postdocs propose and lead projects

It is increasingly something I am perplexed about, at least in the UK.

You need the money to do the research but need the research to gain the money. Therefore how does one gain the independence to get the money to do independent research.

Currently, the majority of people who think they could make novel discoveries leading to increased knowledge and changes in basic research from their respective fields have a period of postdoctoral work which in many cases are  restricted (not severely in the best of cases) as to what they investigate in the lab.

It strikes me as odd that many scientific problems could be overcome by lateral thinking yet many fields appear to strive for conformity in order to succeed.  In particular the grant structure applauds this with a requisite to publish many articles on one certain topic.

In a bid to force disciplines to work together funder’s dangle the carrot of money (as in research funding) in front of scientists in order to facilitate multidisciplinary working. A noble and in many cases useful endeavor.  However, in many cases forges fruitless collaborations.  A necessary risk some may say.

However, should we not be asking more pertinent questions rather than merely combining different scientific fields.  Maybe for every field, rather than dogma centric science, it would be useful to give some freedom to junior academics, who have the ability to challenge this status quo.  Given that senior academics have been bathed in this dogma albeit through no fault of their own, they can not escape it and I believe the scientific youth, much like children ask obvious yet unanswered questions  to attempt to move their field forward.

The difficulty I come back to remains the infrequency of research funding available to junoir researchers to pathe their own way at an early career point, something which I believe would bring enhanced progress.

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Do it yourself self funded biology

This blog has been born, primarily out of frustration. Well, actually, it has been born out of ambition, with the associated frustration that accompanies it, in this case relating to the low number of funding opportunities open to non-tenured academics in particular to the very limited number of fellowship applications available to the most ambitious young scientists.

As it stands each person has a different view of what constitutes science (including scientists) therefore science and particularly ‘good science’ largely becomes, a controlled enterprise, defined by money and governed by an informed, yet selective, set of people with particular beliefs and agendas.  Unfortunately funding for non-agenda driven research proposals are largely lacking with proposals which show little or no (often commercial) immediate application invariably being rejected.  This is even more acute for junior researchers in which a substantial and somewhat arbitrary period of postdoctoral work under the watchful eye of a more established experienced and ‘knowlegable’ colleague is required prior to independence.  Whilst in many cases supervision is not only necessary but beneficial to both parties, however in many cases and for many indivduals this can be stifling and actually limit creativity with many scientists servicing an agenda rather than asking truely pertinant questions.  As Einstein says ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’.  Rather than being more important I believe ‘Imagination lies upstream of knowledge’.

Unfortunately this agenda driven science often comes at the expense of curiosity driven research.  I believe that curiosity driven research is and will be the only way to generate truly novel solutions with the scientific youth being the most likely to succeed.

Given that the rate limiting step of most scientific research appears to be money this blogs primary goal is to develop novel alternatives to the current model of science funding in order to generate some modest research income and provide ways to save money in a scientific research environment.

This blog will chronicle my endeavours (and hopefully stimulate discussion) for alternative funding solutions in order to perform high quality ‘publishable’ research (currently the defining characteristic of a ‘good’ researcher) irrespective of presented opportunities, current scientific agenda or politics. All tools and methods developed will be published in full in this blog as I believe open source science is the key to future developments in basic research.

This blog is not about subertfuging the peer review process but meant as an adjunct to it as rather than just complaining about a lack of funding I thought I would try to come up with creative solutions to overcome this hurdle.

Ultimately I hope this journey will educate, inform and inspire all scientists but particularly younger scientists and the general public showing that it is possible to perform high quality independent scientific research from an early career stage on a shoestring budget.

To this extent my journey has several mission statements:

Investigate novel strategies to fund scientific research.

Create my own lab using re-engineered and purpose-built laboratory equipment/reagents, which are as commonly available as possible, primarily from recycled, donated or self-funded sources.

Publish a peer-reviewed scientific paper based on my self-created lab.

If you like what I do and what I stand for please donate and help me raise funds for my research, particularly projects related to curiosity driven research.

Donate to blue skies research

As a point of note any opinions expressed in this blog are my own and not necessarily representative of my employer.

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